Defending Darko
By NBA TV's Rick Kamla

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March 4 -- We are back, baby.

And we are back with a vengeance after two weeks off to posh with the All-Stars in Houston and then recoup the following week with the family in Ft. Myers. Seriously, freaks, thatís the only way to do it.

All-Star is the blast of all blasts, but after three straight 15-hour days -- book-ended by two buzzkill travel days -- it is imperative to treat yourself to a week of white sandy beaches and sunshine before re-entering civilization.

(Word to the wise, do not think you can get cute with the Houston airport. My wife and two boys and I made our flight from Houston to Ft. Myers with seconds -- literally seconds -- to spare. Sadly, however, we missed our flight from Newark to Houston because the airline moved up the flight by a half hour, and didn't go out of its way to tell us about the change. Who moves up a flight? And I'm platinum elite -- or whatever it's called -- with this airline, which really (bleeps) me off. Itís an injustice not unlike paying a moving company to do the ďmovingĒ for you.)

But enough about my travels and tribulations, letís get back to the business of helping you clobber the competition in your fantasy league.

Although the title ďDefending DarkoĒ may have you thinking Iíve been drinking since the final horn ended the 55th All-Star Game, I am here -- with sober conscience -- to tell you that Darko Milicic could make the difference for your fantasy squad.

I know what youíre thinking. Youíre thinking a) Darko was a stiff with the Pistons and heís gonna be a stiff with the Magic and anyone else dumb enough to acquire him; b) Joe Dumars temporarily traded minds with Lloyd Christmas before drafting Darko over Carmelo Anthony; and c) the first step to recovery is admitting I have a problem.

Well, youíre wrong on all three accounts, haters.


Don't look now, but Darko's game is starting to warm up in Orlando.
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty
First of all, Darko is anything but the second coming of Eric Montross -- as I will explain in a second.

Second, Dumars should not have drafted Darko over Melo, but letís be honest with ourselves and Nuggets GM Kiki Vandeweghe, who should not have taken Melo ahead of Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. Hindsight is so luxurious.

Finally, compare me to Hunter S. Thompson if you must, but kindly refrain from any and all parallels to Gary Busey.

I'll be the first to admit Darko still has a lot to learn. Take Fridayís game, in which he finished with eight points, 10 rebounds, and zero blocks for the first time in five games -- he had blocked 11 shots in the previous four games.

With about a minute to go and the Magic up one in Phoenix, Darko kinda went for his a little too early in the shot clock, drove left, and threw up a bad shot. On the way back into defensive position, Darko almost plowed over a Sun before watching Shawn Marion flush an alley oop for the lead and the game.

Yes, Darko still has some of that baby-horse awkwardness about him, but he's still just 20 years old.

For Darko, it's always been about playing time. You don't get picked No. 2 overall by a brilliant basketball mind like Joe D and not have skills. That just won't happen. Mercifully, we are finally seeing those skills on display in Orlando, and I thank and congratulate Brian Hill for making that possible after only two inactive games.

(There are some coaches, who shall remain nameless -- Dwane Casey -- who wouldn't necessarily realize that as soon. Freaks, why Casey doesn't play Marcus Banks and Mark Blount at least 30 minutes a game is one of the worst coaching decisions of the season. I mean, why wouldn't you force-feed Banks your system and the league in an extended preseason for next year? Is Marko Jaric going to get you back to the playoffs? Is Anthony Carter? Those are rhetorical questions, but the eventual answer could be Banks, so why not find out? Painful.)

Including his solid effort against the Suns, Darko is averaging eight points, 6.8 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks in 23.4 minutes over the last five games. With apologies to Tony Battie owners (I know you're out there), Darko's minutes are on the rise, and so is his game.

We are now seeing what all the fuss was about during the spring of 2003 when Darko captured the imagination of a league.

He can run the floor better than just about every other 7-footer, he has range on his smooth, lefty jumper, he's relatively active on the glass, and he blocks a lot of shots. Sorry, but Battie just doesn't bring the same versatility, or upside, to the painted area, and Darko needs to continue getting more and more minutes.

Hopefully, Orlando management and Coach Hill are on board with that philosophy. And here's hoping you have either picked up Darko, or are splitting from this column for a moment to pull Darko off waivers in every one of your leagues.

In my eight-cat, head-to-head league, I am desperate to make a move so I can pick him up (there are still people mega-sleeping on Darko), but I can't drop Steve Francis, Andre Iguodala, or Deron Williams for Darko.

Two-for-one, anyone?

Thatís already a column full of love for a player with exactly five solid NBA games under his belt, but I do have one more nugget. The Low 5 for Friday's fantasy show listed the top five Serbian players in the NBA, and the rundown went Peja Stojakovic, Darko, Vladimir Radmanovic, Nenad Krstic, and Jaric.

Radmanovic, Krstic and Jaric are more polished players at this point in their careers, but I rank Darko ahead of them because of what he's going to become: a guaranteed double-double with two-plus blocks.

Freaks, if the Magic extend Darko's contract -- and they would be nuts not to -- the 4-5 combo of Dwight Howard and Darko will have Orlando fans once again caring about basketball into May.

Francis Bombs on Broadway


Francis
Iím starting to question whether Steve Francis is losing his grasp on his career, or if heís just having one of those years. After admitting to heart-weary play because of ongoing trade rumors, I have no choice but to ponder such questions.

Psst. Uh, Stevie. Stevie. Shaq got traded. Youíve heard of Shaq ... the Godfather of the league. How dare you think youíre above getting traded.

Francis really blew it on Friday night against the Bulls. On three successive possessions that took the Knicks from down one to down seven, Francis passed up a five-foot teardrop only to botch the intended dime, rammed into Luol Deng like he was at The Combine, and then had a driving layup rejected by Tyson Chandler when the game was already basically over.

The meltdown was so absolute, you felt bad for the dude.

I donít know if Larry intended for Francis to be The Man on every one of those possessions, but if he did, then Francis flopped in his first casting as the star of the play.

His fantasy numbers were nice, however, as he led the team with 18 points and added three threes and a steal in 31 minutes against the Bulls. Over the past two games, with 31 minutes played in each, Franchise is averaging 18.5 points, 1.5 threes, and 1.5 steals. Hmmm ...

Francis may have a ways to go before making the Knicks his franchise, but if he continue with those numbers -- or better, he will get back to the business of styling fantasy owners with his 20-5-5-ish lines.

Alas, it all hinges on what Larry has in store for his crowded backcourt, and The Life and Martyrdom of Larry Brown has been the toughest read of the '05-06 season.